16 October 2017
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Read his account of what it is like to lead his flock in A Letter from Syria in the current edition of ONE. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
16 October 2017
The Rev. Samaan Shehata, shown above in an undated photo, was killed in a knife attack in Cairo, Thursday. (photo: Twitter)
Coptic Orthodox priest killed in street attack in Cairo (The Catholic Herald) Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church says a priest has been killed in a knife attack in a poor Cairo district, the latest deadly assault on members of the country’s Christian minority.
The church says the attack took place on Thursday. The priest was identified in the media as the Rev. Samaan Shehata...
Iraqi forces capture installations outside Kirkuk (BBC) Iraqi government forces have captured key installations outside the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters. A military statement said units had taken control of the K1 military base, the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field, and a state-owned oil company’s offices. Baghdad said the Peshmerga had withdrawn “without fighting,” but clashes were reported south of Kirkuk. The operation was launched a month after the Kurdistan Region held a controversial independence referendum...
Lebanese president says country ‘can no longer cope’ with refugees (AP) Lebanon’s president says his country “can no longer cope” with the presence of Syrian refugees and appealed to the international community for help to organize their return. Michel Aoun says the refugees’ return to safe areas in Syria will put an end to their suffering and save Lebanon from negative repercussions...
U.S.-backed forces in Syria begin assault on Raqqah (The Los Angeles Times) Syrian forces backed by the United States said Sunday that they have launched a final push to drive Islamic State from its last footholds in Raqqah, after tribal leaders and a provincial council negotiated the safe exit of civilians along with the surrender of local militants and family members...
How art is blooming amid the Gaza wasteland (The Guardian) It might seem incongruous to find an event commemorating the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in an isolated enclave corralled by electronically monitored fences, ruled by an armed and proscribed Islamic faction, and succinctly dismissed by Condoleezza Rice as a “terrorist wasteland.” But it was part of a long history of cultural life and heritage, easily overlooked amid a decade-long economic siege and three devastating wars...
13 October 2017
George and Najwa Saadeh meet with the leadership of St. Joseph High School.
(photo: Nadim Asfour)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Diane Handal writes of how families are finding Love as a Healing Balm in Palestine. Here, she gives additional impressions from her trip.
The conveyer belt went round and round at baggage claim in Tel Aviv and I prayed. We had been delayed in New York two hours and I feared my luggage had missed the connection. Then, I saw the little green tag on the black bag that said, “Bella and Lola’s Nana!”
I jumped into a taxi and said, “Jerusalem please!”
This is Jerusalem from the taxi window:
Israeli flags on every street...lots of cranes...beautiful stone walls...newly paved roads...new apartments high on the hilltops...modern street lamps...cyprus, elm, and pine trees...Mc Donald’s...men wearing long beards with side curls emergent from their temples, big black round hats, white fringes hanging on either side of black pants, long black coats...cell phones pressed to ears...women wearing wigs, hairnets and head scarfs.
At Damascus Gate, there were several white police vans, and a strong presence of Israeli policemen. All wore sunglasses, steel gray uniforms, black flak jackets, and they carried assault rifles.
I had arrived at this ancient gateway to the old city of Jerusalem with its crowded bazaar and the holiest sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians — unaware that it had become quite dangerous with a surge in knifing incidents.
I hired another taxi at the gate and argued over the price with the driver in my halting Arabic. The driver wanted to take me all around to enter Bethlehem to avoid the checkpoint. I knew that was prohibitive, cost-wise, so declined. The driver was not happy.
Finally, I agreed to pay $25 just to get to Checkpoint #300, where no one asked to see my passport and I walked through the long tunnel dragging my suitcase and computer bag. I walked up and down hills and still could not find the Jacir Palace Hotel. Finally, I paid another taxi $5 and it was just around the corner.
It was a very long journey. I was exhausted. The first room I was taken to had dirty rugs, a broken phone, and no hot water. I moved twice more with much of the same issues and finally, gave up.
Dinner was sparkling water and biscuits I bought at a nearby market.
Back at the hotel, I took a lukewarm shower and passed out for a few hours. I went down for breakfast and had two fried eggs, Arabic bread, and coffee. The chef and I began talking and he asked my family name. He then told his boss — and every morning, two fried eggs appeared at my table.
George Saadeh is picking me up about 9:30am in the lobby. He sounded very nice on the phone.
The next day, I was inside the “open prison.” I felt the sense of gates closing behind me from the minute I walked through the checkpoint to the other side of the “separation wall” into the streets of Bethlehem.
A heavy weight descended upon me and I thought this was just a touch of what the Palestinians live with every single day.
The sun was shining and the houses and apartment buildings on the hill were all beige, broken by only a few green trees and some black water tanks in the distance.
Water is scarce here and there are many cisterns as the Palestinians are dependent on the Israelis for water. They receive only 17% of the water supply while the Israelis receive 83%, under the Oslo Accords. The settlements have 24–hour water access and that includes water for swimming pools.
Cars were speeding past me and going round and round through the city.
I went to change money in a tiny dark closet of a store and then, walked across the street to Abu Alees, my favorite shawarma place near my family’s home off Orient Street. The wrap was fresh, the chicken tender, the tomato, cucumber, and parsley salad fresh, and the hot sauce burned in my mouth. I was in heaven.
Later, I walked up the street toward town to buy some cherries and oranges and the owner gave me a discount and smiled. I asked for teen (figs), but he said they were not in season. The Palestinians are kind people.
For three shekels, less than $1, I took a “service” (a taxi that picks up people along the way) back to my hotel.
My friend Wajdi Zoughby — who is an IT genius — greeted me with a hug at the hotel.
He is married now and just had his second child, a little girl named Marion. His son Khuder is two and named after his father, George, who died a few years ago. I often think of the opportunities Wajdi could have had on the other side of this Wall.
Yesterday, I met George Saadeh and spent the day with him at the Greek Orthodox School where he is principal. He is a good man who is very smart, very kind, and works hard to see change in a community under occupation.
His daughter Christine was just 12 when she was killed in an Israeli raid. The family was on their way to the market. Hundreds of bullets shattered the windshield and windows. Christine was shot in the head and neck and died. Nine bullets struck her father George. His eldest daughter Marion was shot in the leg; his wife’s body was laden with shrapnel.
He is a strong man despite this pain and suffering no parent should endure and he has held onto his faith throughout a very difficult journey.
George, Najwa, his wife, and I went to St. Joseph’s convent. The sisters there taught Najwa and her daughters at the St. Joseph School. They have been a tremendous support for Najwa, particularly Soeur George.
And, Soeur George knew my grandmother Jameleh. She met her when we visited Bethlehem and stayed at the convent. I was 10 years old at the time. She was 21 and had just entered the novitiate.
We went to the Church of the Nativity later, which is being renovated. A huge crane sat on the roof of the church, the only one I saw in Bethlehem.
Najwa, George, the photographer Nadim, and I went to dinner at a café next to the church.
After dinner, I interviewed Najwa. My heart broke for her, for them. But their strong faith and their journey toward forgiveness through their fervent belief in peace and reconciliation have given them the tools to survive.
God bless them.
13 October 2017
The Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski blesses tourists outside the Church of the Visitation on 5 October in Jerusalem. Franciscan Father Brzezinski has been superior at the church for the past 10 years.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, the Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Franciscan Father Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan custos and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Father Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirt of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre are very important for Christians,” said Father Brzezinski. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day ... it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulchre, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th year anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Father Brzezinski and the other friar have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century.
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Father Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.
13 October 2017
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri at the Vatican.
(photo: Vatican Radio/Reuters)
Pope Francis receives Lebanese prime minister (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis received the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Rafic Hariri on Friday morning, in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. A Communiqué from the Press Office of the Holy See reports that the Pope and the Prime Minister held cordial conversation over a range of subjects, including various aspects of the situation in Lebanon...
How a seed bank, almost lost in Syria’s war, could help feed a warming planet (The New York Times) Ali Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy...
Animal blessing in India brings together different faiths (Crux) Among the things that can bring people of different faiths together is a love of animals. In India, the traditional blessing of the animals, associated with the feast of St. Francis, brings more than Christian families to one Catholic parish. “People from all faiths are welcome. Many people of other religions bring their animals for the blessing,” Father Joe D’ Souza, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church told Crux. “There were 8 non-Christian families present, belonging to the Parsi and Hindu faiths,” adding the animals break all religious barriers...
Unity deal offers hope for Palestinians (The New York Times) After a decade of hostility and recrimination, the two main Palestinian factions came together in Cairo on Thursday to sign a reconciliation deal that holds out the tantalizing prospect of a united Palestinian front...
12 October 2017
Pope Francis celebrated Mass on 12 October to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
Editor’s note: Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, which CNEWA is proud to be a part of. Pope Francis marked the event with a Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major — you can watch part of his homily above — and spoke powerfully about the subject of Christian persecution.
Carol Glatz of CNS filed this report:
No matter how much suffering Christians face in the world, God never forgets those who trust in and serve him, Pope Francis told leaders of Eastern Catholic churches.
The courage to “knock at the door” of God’s heart and “the courage of faith (are) needed when you pray — to have faith that the Lord is listening,” the pope told patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, priests and lay members of the Eastern churches during his homily in Rome’s St. Mary Major.
The special Mass of thanksgiving on 12 October marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, an office that supports the Eastern Catholic churches, and the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which offers advanced degrees in Eastern Christian liturgy. During the morning Mass, the Sistine Chapel choir sang with a choir of Eastern seminarians studying in Rome, and an Eastern priest chanted the day's Gospel reading in Arabic.
In his homily, the pope recalled the congregation was founded during the tumultuous time of World War I and that, today, another kind of world war continued to rage with “so many of our Christian brothers and sisters of the Eastern churches experiencing tragic persecutions and an ever-more disturbing diaspora.”
The 23 Eastern Catholic churches include the Chaldean, Syriac Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Melkite and Maronite churches as well as the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of all the Eastern churches. Their presence in the East and Middle East has been threatened by decades of crises, oppression and war.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches on 12 Octoberat St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis said the difficult situations they face beg many questions, most of all, “Why?”
How many times do they hear from the lay faithful or experience the feeling that “We see the wicked, those with no scruples, look out only for themselves, crushing others, and it seems that everything goes so well for them, they get whatever they want, and they only think about savoring life,” the pope said.
Like in the day’s first reading from the prophet Malachi, the people wonder why evildoers prosper. But God tells them he listens “attentively” and has noted all those who fear the Lord and trust in him no matter what, the pope said.
“God does not forget his children, his memory is for the righteous, for those who suffer, who are oppressed and ask, ‘Why?’ and yet they do not stop trusting in the Lord,” the pope said.
“How many times the Virgin Mary, on her journey, asked herself, ‘Why?’ But in her heart, which reflected on everything, God’s grace made her faith and hope shine,” he said.
What is needed is the courage to “knock on God’s heart” and pray. “When you pray, you need the courage of faith,” the “courage to knock at the door” and the faith that God is listening, he said.
Like the Gospel says, “Ask and you will receive,” God will always give his greatest gift: his Spirit, he said.
Before the Mass, Pope Francis visited the nearby Pontifical Oriental Institute and greeted the members of the Congregation for Eastern Churches as well as the patriarchs and major archbishops the congregation supports.
Pope Francis shovels dirt under a tree during a visit to the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome on 12 October to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
With students gathered in the garden, the pope blessed a cypress tree, and then he met with guests and the Jesuits who run the educational institute.
The pope gave them a written message asking them to reflect on ways the school can continue to fulfill its mission given that the dictatorships of the past have often left behind fertile terrain for the spread of global terrorism.
“No one can close their eyes” to the current situation of persecution against Christians and their forced exodus from their homelands, he said. Many now find themselves settled in Western nations where Latin-rite parishes and dioceses are the norm.
He invited the pontifical institute, which helps members of the Eastern churches strengthen their faith before the many challenges they face, to prayerfully listen to “what the Lord wants in this precise moment.”
It may be, “for example, encouraging future priests to instill in their Eastern faithful, wherever they find themselves, a deep love for their traditions and the rite they belong to; and at the same time, to sensitize bishops of dioceses of the Latin rite to take on the task” of offering adequate spiritual and human assistance to these families and individuals.
12 October 2017
Sheikh Ahmen al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the oldest Muslim university in the world, greets Pope Francis during the pontiff’s visit to Egypt in May 2017. A decade after the landmark document, “A Common Word,” efforts at improving relations between Muslims and Christians continue.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Ten years ago, on 13 October 2007 a document entitled “A Common Word” was signed and published by a group of 138 Muslim scholars. Its name was taken from the Quran 3:65 and it appeared three years before the so-called “Arab Spring,” four years before the beginning of the civil war in Syria and seven years before ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate. Since its publication, governments have fallen in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, a war has started in Yemen and almost a half million Syrians have been killed in internal violence in the country and millions of people — Christian and Muslim — driven from their homes.
From the outset, “A Common Word” was unique. It is a letter addressed to Christians. It manifests a surprising grasp of the complexity of Christianity and its inner divisions. Using the appropriate ecclesiastical titles, the letter is addressed to the Pope and the Patriarchs of the other four ancient churches — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition, thirteen other patriarchs, seven major archbishops, including Canterbury, and the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, Baptist World Alliance, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and “Leaders of Christian Churches everywhere...” are addressed.
Using monotheism as a starting point, the document carefully examines the sacred writings of the Jews, Christians and Muslims to see points of convergence. The methodology used is familiar to theologians in all three traditions.
While the entire document is important, its conclusions were extraordinary — and I might say underestimated — ten years ago and are perhaps more important now than ever. Moving from the level of exegesis to application, the scholars declare:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.
Lest anyone think that this is merely a recognition of self-interest and survival, the document stresses the religious component of its argument in a striking way: “...we say that our very eternal souls are also at stake if we fail to sincerely make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony.”
What is happening here is that a large and diverse body of Islamic scholars (ulamā) are basically re-evaluating the notion of jihād. In both Muslim and non-Muslim literature jihād is seen as the constant state between the Dar ul-Salām, “the realm of peace,” where Islam and Muslims are in charge, and the Dar ul-Ḥarb, “the realm of war” where they are not.
In Islam, the only legally permitted war is jihād, i.e. extending the realm of peace, i.e. submission (islām) to the one God, to the entire world. Muslim scholars placed numerous conditions and restrictions on conducting jihād, many of which seem enlightened even in the 21st century. However, the very concept of jihād as a permanent state of at very least possible aggression seems foreign — and is understandably disturbing to many, if not all, non-Muslims.
The Muslim scholars in “A Common Word” clearly state that “no side can unilaterally win” this conflict. This is a major new direction in Muslim thinking. No longer is détente between the two “realms” an unfortunate and temporary necessity while waiting for the winds of fortune to change. It is now a required goal to be achieved. The document recognizes that not everyone agrees with this and speaks of “those who nevertheless relish conflict and destruction for their own sake or reckon that ultimately they stand to gain through them....” The rise of jihadi groups in the last decades, especially but not exclusively ISIS, underlines the importance of this document. The letter offers the beginning of a religious solution to the problem of religious extremism which can be definitively eradicated only by religious means Using the strongest religious language possible, “A Common Word” recognizes that “our very eternal souls are also at stake” in finding a solution to violent, religious extremism.
If the document is extraordinary in its addressees, it is no less extraordinary in its signatories. Originally it was signed by 138 scholars. What might understandably be overlooked by non-Muslims is the amazing variety of the signatories. Islam is divided — sometimes bitterly — between different groups. It is extraordinary that so diverse a group of Muslims could come together at least temporarily to sign this document.
In a world where Christianity in the Middle East is struggling for its very existence, where xenophobia, racism and “Islamophobia” are raising their ugly heads, perhaps the 10th anniversary of “A Common Word” might provide an opportunity to re-envision a new type of dār ul-salām — a “realm of peace” — in which Christians, Muslims and others work together for a world of peace, justice and security.
12 October 2017
Ethiopian young people celebrate the conclusion of a summer religious festival in Adigrat, supported in part by CNEWA. (photo: CNEWA)
Several days ago, we received an inspiring report from our regional office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, describing the success of a summer feeding project, which included a large festival bringing together hundreds of young people.
Tarekegn Umoro, the programs officer in Addis Ababa, writes:
Pointing his finger towards all the youth, who were singing outside the hall in the evening, holding lit candles and waving their hands on the air, [youth minister] Eyob Hailesilassie said, “Look how they are praising the Lord! Do you think that they forget this moments in their lives? They never forget! We are very much satisfied, thanks to CNEWA and to all who supported this summer program.”
You can read the full account here.
12 October 2017
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. (photo: Vatican Radio/AFP)
Pope urges Oriental Churches to continue courageous witness (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday celebrated Mass in the Basilica of St Mary Major to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Congregation for Eastern Churches. In his homily the pope encouraged all Christians of the Oriental Churches to continue with their courageous witness, despite the dramatic persecutions that they suffer...
Syro-Malabar Catholics rejoice in Pope Francis’ recent moves (UCANews.com) In a historic move, Pope Francis has extended the administrative powers of the Syro-Malabar Church across India, removing restrictions imposed since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. Announcing the establishment of two new dioceses for the Eastern-rite church in letter to all India bishops, Pope Francis also authorized it to have pastoral powers across India, a move resisted by the majority Latin-rite bishops in the past...
The Christians fighting for freedom in Syria (National Review) The soldiers of the Syriac Military Council sit on a rug in an abandoned home in the urban wreckage of the caliphate’s capital, perhaps 200 yards from ISIS, drinking tea and chain-smoking. The predominantly Christian unit is a small but symbolically important part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have encircled ISIS and are slowly closing in...
Half of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon out of school (Middle East Monitor) Six years after the start of the Syrian crisis half of all Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are still out of school despite efforts by the UN and other parties, All4syria.info reported yesterday. Lebanese sources said that the ministry of education carried out several positive measures to bring Syrian refugee children into schools yet only 52 per cent joined in the 2017-2018 school year. Lebanon’s education ministry could only provide schooling for 250,000 children...
Prayers of the persecuted around the world (The New York Times) Though Monika Bulaj grew up in Communist Poland, she was nonetheless a devoutly Catholic child who studied mystics and dreamed of a life as a cloistered nun. But her teenage discovery that her grandmother’s town was once home to thousands of Jews who perished in the Holocaust set her on a different path: a 30-year journey documenting persecuted religious minorities around the world...
11 October 2017
A young woman at the Father Roberts Institute greets a visitor. (photo: Don Duncan)
During my recent reporting in Lebanon, where I looked at Catholic institutions caring for people with specific challenges in their lives — from deaf children to the mentally ill, to those struggling to end addiction, to those confined to geriatric wards — the question of the role of faith kept coming up.
What became clear very soon to me as I undertook my interviews was that not only is faith a very strong part of many of these people’s lives but, in many cases, the specific challenges they faces has led to a deepening of their faith.
It led me to reflect on the role God plays in everyone’s life, especially during moments of trial. As a child, I learned from the Bible that God never forgets us and that he is with us, by our side, even when we have forgotten him. As I have grown older and my faith has evolved, this notion has been of much comfort to me in my more difficult moments.
However, many of the people I interviewed for this article, face daily hardships to a degree I cannot probably even conceive of.
Some of the adults whom I met at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, in the Beirut suburb of Jal al Dib, suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polarity that have caused them to be removed from their families and communities.
Many of the deaf children I met at the Father Roberts Institute for the Deaf (some 40 minutes up the mountains from Beirut) face social stigma surrounding the hard-of-hearing. What’s more, many of these children are now on the cusp of puberty and they will soon have to grapple not only with the huge identity turmoil that is involved in becoming an adult, they will also have to grasp — and eventually accept — that they will become deaf adults.
At Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Antelias (near Beirut), which caters mostly to geriatric patients, many of them face death with few or no family by their side; a good number of them struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or indeed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
And yet, they told me with a conviction that seemed unflagging, that God is with them every day, that indeed their hardship makes their faith stronger. Alice Khoury, an aging schizophrenic patient in Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill told me: “I love my God. Without my faith I would no longer be here.” God has helped her survive and overcome the challenges of her life.
In an art workshop at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, art therapist Mona Esta explained how various patients perceive reality and how they replicate that reality on the canvas, based on their specific psychiatric condition. Schizophrenic patients are unable to reproduce depth and perspective, she tells me. Excessive focus on painting a point or dot within a canvas is a classic artistic trait of a patient with psychosis.
It made me think how these patients — who live with such challenging disabilities yet who have such a deep faith — visualize or imagine God, or the Baby Jesus or even various biblical tableaux such as the pregnant Mary being led to Bethlehem on a donkey by Joseph, the walking of Christ on water, or even the Crucifixion. How might these believers see these biblical figures and events? How does God manifest himself in their imaginations and thus in their lives?
I looked about me at the various finished paintings on the workshop wall. Some were recognizable depictions of objects, people, and landscapes. Others slipped more into abstraction, even cubist renditions of physical reality.
And yet there was a beauty in all of them, and a truth. As I looked around, I could see traces of God and his love, in myriad forms and abstractions, all around the room.
Read more about Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE.